The Illusion of Gaia (Illusion of Time in the English-speaking world outside of the U.S.) breaks from the gods-reviving-the-world theme of previous Quintet games Actraiser and Soul Blazer, and instead gives us the tale of a seemingly normal young boy with a touch of psychic ability. The protagonist, Will, lost his father during an expedition to the mysterious Tower of Babel years ago, and becomes drawn in to a scheme involving the tower when the King of his land demands that Will bring him a jeweled ring that Will's father discovered. This leads to a journey through a sort of caricaturized version of our world in the 1600s, as much of the game takes place in famous real-world cultural marvels such as Ankor Wat, The Great Wall of China and the Nazca drawings.
This particular installment in the Heaven and Earth trilogy was written by Mariko Ohara, an award-winning Japanese science fiction novelist who, as far as I can find, never before nor never again worked with video games. The story has a sort of vague and ill-defined feel throughout, and I get the sense that it was due to Ms. Ohara being unfamiliar with the new medium. I got the feeling that they had established the overall concept of the game pretty well, but had trouble with the particulars of the journey (and reconciling them with the action-based gameplay), and thus just ended up making a lot of stuff up on the fly. None of the characters are particularly well developed or show much of a range of personality (though Will is unique from previous Quintet entries in that he has both a developed identity and dialogue). Nonetheless, the story holds together well enough that it carries you through the game adequately, and this is where Quintet really started to introduce and dig in to "challenging" themes that hithertofore went pretty much untouched in the world of gaming.
It's probably a little predictable and tiring to compare the game to Zelda, but there it is - that's the fundamental template the whole trilogy is based on. This game particularly, because it is the only one with no experience system - you get all your health and strength upgrades at fixed points, and there are only a few truly optional upgrades (which are attained mostly by collecting the Red Gems that are hidden throughout the game).
Will is more robust than previous hero Blazer; he attacks with a flute instead of a sword, but can dash by double-tapping and use his psychic power by holding the L or R button. Will can block small projectiles with his psychic ability, and can also draw certain objects towards him. He'll also gain several new abilities over the course of the journey, such as the ability to do a sliding kick attack while dashing. There are also two forms for Will to change into while in the dungeon areas - a hulking knight named Freedan, and a spirit creature called Shadow who possesses the ability to liquify and ooze through certain floors. The use of the additional unique powers of these two characters is required to get through certain areas of each dungeon, so you'll transform between them fairly frequently (though you do not get Shadow until the game is nearly complete).
The game's structure isn't too different from Soul Blazer - you proceed from town to dungeon in a linear fashion, and in the dungeons the objective is generally just to kill everything that moves. This game is perhaps even more simplistic, as you don't have the interlocking system of reviving people in the towns who must then be returned to, but instead are simply on a straightforward kill mission with taking out the area boss as your only objective (you also can't return to most areas once finished with them). The dungeons can be moderately confusing and mazelike in their layout, but they contain little in the way of real puzzles (using psychic power to move a few statues around being about as close as you get to that). Though simplistic in structure, the game is fairly difficult - most of the dungeon monsters hit pretty hard, and you cannot level-grind your way around them. There are healing herbs in the game, but there is no way to replenish them as you could in Soul Blazer; the few that are found laying about in towns and treasure chests are all you get to carry you through the game. On the whole this game is much harder than Actraiser and Soul Blazer - there are a couple of very frustrating boss fights. The play balance is decent overall though, and the average player should be able to make it through the trouble spots with a few tries.
The graphics are consistent with the rest of the series - average-to-good sprite work, with the backgrounds being the highlights. I particularly like the way rooms are displayed in this one - the game uses a quasi-3D perspective that lends a sense of depth not present in your usual console adventure. It means less vertical space to move in, but you hardly notice, and it's more interesting than the usual "flat floor" look in adventure/RPG games of the period. The game's environs are also consistently detailed and colorful.
The soundtrack was composed by Yasuhiro Kawasaki - the only other gaming reference to his credit that I could find was an obscure Japanese SNES game called "The Game of Billionaire" (and possibly SimTower for the SNES, though I can't find a secondary source to verify it). It seems a shame that he faded from the gaming world, as his soundtrack here is really quite good (especially for a first effort!) and I would have liked to have heard more of his work. The town themes are very pretty and mellow, and the dungeon/battle music can hang in there with Yuzo Koshiro's similar work on the Actraiser score. I don't know if I'd call it better than Actraiser overall, but it's in the same neighborhood, and it's definitely a lot more consistent than the Soul Blazer soundtrack.
Even though the story tends to be confused and a bit underdeveloped, Gaia works because the action sequences are solid, and the town sequences consistently hit you with material that is a little more mature and provocative than what you'd expect for the SNES. Death is more permanent here than it is in, say, the Final Fantasy world (with it's endless supply of Phoenix Downs until the plot requires that they not work). Will himself is treated pretty gently - you respawn in the same area you died as long as you have collected enough Dark Points, but even if you're fresh out the game just kicks you farther back to the last town or "safe area" you passed through. Other characters in the game are not as fortunate - everywhere Will goes he seems to encounter misery, suffering and lives ended violently.
One really interesting point of the game is that, with this title, Quintet became one of the first game developers to use the medium to question traditional wealth and power hierarchies. In Soul Blazer, even though you are the son of a god, you spend most of your time running about trying to save various kings and rulers so that they can go back about their business. In Illusion of Gaia, however, nearly every person in a position of wealth, power and privilege is portrayed in a negative way, and your quest is never about restoring the "good nobility" to power from the rule of the demons. You work directly for the unifying spirit of creation, and spend most of the game trying to escape the clutches of the king of your homeland. There are also no "demons" to speak of - there are monsters, but the main "antagonist" is a comet that simply has the effect of speeding up evolution and mutating people who contact it in mysterious ways. The humans in the game that are "evil" are wholly culpable for their own actions - there's no Great Demonic Foozle to pin the blame on.
Early in the game, for example, you visit a town called Freejia, which is picturesque and beautiful ... until you visit the back alleys, and find beggars, rampant poverty and a slave labor trade that is the foundation of the city's economy. Slave labor actually continues to be a major theme throughout, as you encounter the labor traders in numerous places throughout the game, eventually learning that the rich parents of one of your travelling companions (in a city named Euro ... any historical commentary there, you think?) are heading up the company that is the focal point of all buying and selling of forced labor.
You've also got a less-than-completely-moral hero, though the game tends to gloss over these moments and not dig in to them as much as they deserve. The most morally questionable moment of the game comes in a town called Watermia, where Will and company find they need a number of camel-like animals called Kruks to cross a vast desert. With no money and no means of earning any, Will must play a game called "Russian Glass", where poison is randomly placed into one of five glasses and two gamblers take turns drinking them until one dies. Will, being psychic, knows from the start which glass contains the poison. However, he plays the game showing no intent to stop or warn his foe if they choose the poisoned glass. As it happens, the game wears on so that there is only one glass left, and it is the opponent's turn. The opponent of course knows at this point that this must be the poisoned glass, yet he chooses to drink it anyway. The issue is not with that choice, but with the fact that Will stands there and does absolutely nothing while the opponent moves to drink, even when literally everyone else at the game rushes over to try to convince him to stop. This seems to indicate that, had the opponent picked the glass earlier in the game, Will would have happily let him kill himself in the aim of winning the bet. Now, I suspect that the writers simply rushed this part and didn't think of the ramifications of the scene all the way through, but it stands as a surprisingly disturbing and amoral moment.
Will also proceeds along his quest not really understanding what he is doing (or why) for much of the journey. Towards the end, a brief vision is shown to Will of the world that he is fighting to bring about - a vision of one of our modern cities, with concrete and automobiles stretching as far as the eye can see. Will expresses surprise and disgust at this vision, to which the answer is pretty much "If humans think they are happy, it doesn't matter what kind of a world they have". This makes the purpose of the whole journey rather ambivalent and confusing, further still by the fact that Will (along with the player) goes right back to his quest without question after seeing the vision.
Aside from the issues raised, the depictions of violence are surprisingly graphic for this era and console. Not so much during battle, which is almost entirely against monsters that just sort of disappear when killed, but the aftermath of various events where people die are surprisingly morbid (a prime example)
The follow-up to this game, Terranigma, would go a little more in-depth in its social commentary (as well as have a much better developed and less confusing story), but there's plenty here to make this game worth exploring. Gaia at least introduces some complex issues to the medium (even if it then turns around and shrugs them off most of the time), and it also happens to be pretty fun to play and has a very decent soundtrack.
* Gameplay Video